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I'm a huge fan of the Hunger Games books, which along with Harry Potter and Twilight, add to the YA (young adult) genre of books that adults also love to read.
In today's post, YA author Natalie Wright gives us some tips on writing and marketing in the genre.
When Joanna asked me to write a post with writing and marketing tips geared to writers of Young Adult (YA) fiction, I said, “Sure! Sounds great.”
Then I tried to write the post.
I’d said yes to Joanna before pondering whether there are, in fact, writing and marketing tips specific to YA fiction. The elements of what makes a great story are the same across genres, aren’t they? And marketing tips such as you might find here on Joanna’s blog apply to all types of fiction books, don’t they?
After pondering for quite some time, my answer to these questions is yes – and no. There is a difference between a YA novel and a novel written for adults. At times the difference is subtle. Take voice, for example. YA books have a YA “voice”. I’m not sure I can explain what it is, but I know it when I read it (and I know it when I read it because I’ve read a lot of YA books (see tip #1 below)). And because YA writers are marketing their books (at least partially) to children, not adults, there are additional considerations on the marketing front too.
I’ve come up with five tips for you, specific to YA fiction. I don’t claim to be an expert on this, but having self-published two YA novels (and two more on the way), I’ve learned some things (often the hard way!). I’m happy to share these tips with you. Please add your tips below in the comments.
(1) Know Your Genre
This tip is applicable to all genre fiction writers, but I think it bears repeating. Readers of genre fiction have expectations of their beloved genre. If the reader’s expectations are not met, the reader will be unsatisfied with the story, even if the writing is fabulous. Unsatisfied readers do not recommend the book to their friends or give it 5 stars. Worse yet, an unsatisfied reader may pan the book publicly.
How do you know reader expectations of your chosen genre?
Read books in your chosen genre. A lot of books. Read large press books and small. Read Indie. Make a list of the commonalities to determine what expectations a reader may have of the genre.
I read a lot of YA fiction, both large press and Indie. One thing I’ve seen with Indie YA is the occasional misread of the genre by the writer. For example, I’ve come across Indie books categorized as YA but with an adult or child protagonist rather than a teen protagonist. As a reader, this is jarring. The reader is immediately unsure what the book is supposed to be. “I thought this was a teen book, but the main character is twenty-five.” This is an example of an author not understanding reader expectations of the genre.
Know your genre and meet reader expectations to improve your chances of reader satisfaction.
(2) Know Your Audience
Understand the audience for your story before you write the book. If your book is geared to 11-14 year olds, it will be a different book than if it is geared to 16-19 year olds. Think very specifically about your target audience. Who is your ideal reader? Boy? Girl? Age? What are the child’s other interests? If you create a story with a specific target reader in mind, it will make the marketing of your novel significantly easier.
Speaking of marketing, make sure you gear your marketing efforts to your specific audience. If you hire a blog tour company or set up a tour yourself, focus on blogs dedicated to YA fiction. I’ve learned this one the hard way, and wasted valuable time and money in the process. It’s a wasted effort to try to “sell” my young adult paranormal fantasy books to middle-aged folks who read solely literary fiction or adult romance novels. Focus your efforts on blogs that cater to YA fiction, and more specific to your sub-genre if you can. Two companies that work specifically on setting up YA book tours are Goddess Fish Promotions and SupaGurl Tours.
(3) Know the Rules of YA Fiction
Adults read what they want without the need for approval of their book purchase or library lending. Teens, however, are often subject to some form of adult censorship. When it comes to buying books, few teens have unfettered access to the funds with which to buy their own books without parental approval. A librarian will be purchasing the books that she wants to add to the collection, and will often have to consider community standards in her decision of what to buy and where to shelve the book.
Writers need to keep these true “gatekeepers” in mind. Allow me to illustrate with a lesson learned from my own publishing experience. When I published my first novel, Emily’s House, I didn’t adequately consider the gatekeeper factor. I wrote the dialogue between my teen characters the way I “heard” them speak in my head – and the way my friends and I talked when we were in high school – i.e. potty mouth.
I got no objections to the language from teen readers.
The push back came from adults. Parents protested that a single use of the “F” word (at a point where the MC was hit with a cane and she said “What the f***?) was inappropriate. And librarians said they couldn’t shelve it in the YA section because parents would complain.
My solution? I engaged my blog audience and made a game of finding colorful, but clean, language to replace the offending words and phrases. I then released a new edition. Why? Because my target audience for that book are kids ages 11-14, and I don’t want the book to be kept out of their hands because their parents/teachers/librarians find it offensive for them to read.
And this goes back to tip #2. If I had adequately thought about my audience before I wrote the book, I would have realized that using the “F” word, even once, in a book that was intended for kids as young as 11 wasn’t a smart move.
We want our books to find the largest possible audience. If you write for teens or younger, you need to be aware of what does, and what doesn’t, pass muster with the adult gatekeepers. If you write “edgy” YA books intended for older YA audiences (or “New Adult” books), the “rules” are more flexible. Consider the reasonable expectations of a reader – and their parents. If your book is not edgy, make sure the rating that would be applied to your book is no higher than PG.
(4) Know Yourself
Perhaps better than any other age group, teens can sniff out a poser without even trying. When it comes to our social media and our writing, being ourselves works best.
“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde
The thing is, when you write for teens, it can be tempting to attempt to be cool or try to fit in with the teen audience. We may force trendy dialogue on our characters or throw in references to popular teen culture. And in social media, we may try to play a part in order to gain fans.
We need not try to play a role in order to be a successful writer for the teen market. If you watch interviews of the three most commercially successful writers for teens of all time – J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Myers, and Suzanne Collins – you won’t find a “poser” among them. They write the stories that are authentic to them. Not one of them tries to be anything other than what she is.
And their fans love them!
Not because they’re super cool women, but because they write super cool stories. (They may be super cool women too J)
If you dig into your past, you can get in touch with that teen version of yourself. Use your imagination and ask her what she was worried about, or feared, or what she wanted more than anything else. If you channel that teen version of yourself as you craft your story – and write from that place – you’ll find your authentic teen voice. And the authentic writer voice is irresistible to readers, whether the readers are teens or adults.
(5) Give of Yourself
This marketing tip may go (somewhat) against what you have heard from some book/author marketing experts. Social media experts frequently warn us, “Don’t talk about yourself.” They suggest, instead, to share tips and information that will be useful to others.
Good advice. Yet . . .
I can’t speak to the issue of marketing a book written for adults, but as for YA fiction fans, they want to know the writer. Be prepared to share of yourself.
I don’t mean a 24-hour Twitter feed of updates about your newest release and where to buy it. Spamming teen readers with constant posts that scream “Buy my book!” will result in a mass exodus of followers.
If you’ve managed to find a reader who enjoys your writing well enough to hunt down your Twitter handle, or find you on Facebook and hit the Like button, they want to learn more about you – as a person. They are curious about the human being behind the words.
For an example of a YA writer that successfully uses social media to engage her readers, check out Maggie Stiefvater. You can view her lovely website here (from which you can link to her blog), and her Facebook page here. Maggie doesn’t blog about writing tips (at least not often), because her blog is devoted to her readers, not other writers. And her Facebook posts aren’t filled exclusively with “buy my book” links.
Maggie shares snippets of her life, from the giant corn she saw on her book tour road trip to a video of her playing the bagpipes (badly). Maggie started by writing amazing stories, of course. But her fans go to her social media to learn more about her and her books, and Maggie makes great use of it.
And if you study Maggie Stiefvater’s social media long enough, you’ll see that she has mastered #4 tip above. She is authentic, and it shows. Maggie is just being Maggie, and her readers love her for it.
What is unique about you? What other talents, besides writing, do you possess? How can you share of yourself and create your own tribe of loyal fans and followers?
Do you write or read YA? Do you have any other tips you'd like to share? Please do leave a comment below.
Natalie Wright is the author of The Akasha Chronicles, a young adult fantasy series, the H.A.L.F. trilogy, a YA speculative fiction series arriving Fall of 2013. When not writing, blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting, Wattpadding or eating chocolate, Natalie nurtures her young daughter, feeds her dog too many treats, and can’t resist watching Ancient Aliens, no matter how absurd the show becomes.